By Mike Rahn
Fair chase and responsible harvest are hallmarks of ethical hunting and angling. Instead, four Illinois anglers exhibited greed in early October on Lake of the Woods. The quartet exceeded their collective 16 walleye possession limit by 92 fish.
This case had the signs of a classic game and fish law violation bust. Department of Natural Resources conservation officers acted on a tip from a concerned citizen who observed the violations and placed an anonymous phone call to the Turn In Poachers (TIP) hot line.
According to the TIP report, the four men were seen catching and keeping large numbers of fish, leaving, then returning to catch and keep more. Acting on this information, conservation officer Jeff Birchem, Baudette, went undercover. Working in plain clothes and an unmarked car, he located the suspects' vehicles, their boats docked nearby, and the cabin in which they were staying.
CO Birchem watched as members of the group carried five-gallon pails of fish to a nearby fish-cleaning house. When he moved in for the bust, he learned that the group had already shipped a box of cleaned fish to the Illinois address of one of the anglers. These men now face more than $4,000 in fines and restitution and the loss of Minnesota angling privileges for three years.
One of the best tools in the CO's toolbox has always been the confidential tip. For the past 25 years, the nonprofit TIP organization has provided a steady supply of tips on violations—ranging from illegal game and fish harvests to environmental degradation—through a highly organized program that encourages citizens to become partners in protecting natural resources.
TIP was founded in September 1981 by a group of avid hunters and anglers, including at that time DNR Commissioner Joe Alexander, Volunteer editor John McKane, CO Pat McGuire, and Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant. According to TIP executive director Al Thomas, Minnesota's deer herd was on the rebound after tough times, and "deer poaching became a real concern. We've seen that when there is more game, there are more hunters out, and some seem more willing to break the law."
In its first year, TIP referred 1,866 calls to DNR conservation officers. The total number of referrals has fluctuated since that time. With 1,140 in 2005, this downward trend suggests the effectiveness of the program, says Thomas.
A 20-member volunteer board of directors governs TIP. Minnesota's TIP is not the only one of its kind, though it was one of the first. Most states and Canadian provinces now have a program like TIP; many, in fact, use the same acronym.
Minnesota's TIP is different, however, in how it gets funded. "Most people assume that TIP is funded by their taxes, just like the DNR, and are often hesitant to make contributions. But Minnesota's TIP is one of only five or six in the United States that are not taxpayer-funded," says Thomas, TIP's only full-time employee. TIP operates on a lean budget of roughly $150,000 per year, all of it coming from donations from individuals and conservation groups.
"Conservation officers and TIP are a great marriage," says Maj. Jeff Thielen, DNR Enforcement operations support manager. "When I think back to the really good [game and fish violation] cases, the majority have originated with TIP."
On the first day of Minnesota's 2006 waterfowl season, COs Al Peterson of Osage and Joe Stattelman of Detroit Lakes received a TIP call about a man hunting ducks over a corn-baited pond near Park Rapids. For violating both federal and state waterfowl regulations, this undisciplined hunter could pay more than $1,500 in fines and restitution.
Several recent TIP cases have involved fish poaching. Two anglers netted $8,000 in total fines and restitution for catching 314 crappies. Another angler exceeded the northern pike limit by 26 fish—and went home with fines and restitution of $1,400. A group of five anglers poached 117 walleyes and 305 sunfish and could pay restitution totaling $3,500 and fines of up to $3,000 each.
Although game and fish violations are most common, "we're now receiving more and more TIP calls for violating environmental rules," says Thomas. "Wetland violations, all-terrain vehicle damage, or snowmobile rules violations are among those we get."
Rewards for tips that lead to arrests may range from $25 to $100 for information about common fish, small game, and nongame violations. Tips on big game or protected species violations—such as deer poaching or shooting protected swans—are eligible for up to $250. Tips on the most excessive and flagrant violations, especially those committed for profit, could yield rewards of up to $1,000.
Many TIP informants aren't interested in rewards though. "About 40 percent of our TIP sources turn the reward down," says Thomas. Sometimes informants are offered the current TIP fundraising wildlife art print as an alternate reward.
TIP takes its message to the public in a variety of ways, including presentations at conservation club banquets, displays at sports shows, billboards along highways, and signs posted at public boat accesses and wildlife management areas.
Whatever the medium, TIP's message is always the same: Poachers who violate Minnesota hunting and fishing regulations do so at their own peril. Minnesota's eyes and ears are watching and listening, and consequences are just a TIP away.
Reports to TIP can be made several ways. The most urgent tips, in which the perpetrator is likely to escape or the evidence disappear, should be directed to the TIP phone hot line: 800-652-9093, answered 24 hours a day by either DNR Enforcement Division personnel or a Minnesota State Patrol dispatcher, who forwards the calls to local COs. Cell phone users simply dial #TIP.
For tips that are less time-sensitive, such as to alert COs to watch for an anticipated crime, citizen informants can file an online report at www.dnr.state.mn.us/enforcement/tip.html or www.turninpoachers.com.
The more information, the better, says DNR Chief Conservation Officer Col. Mike Hamm. "Location is especially important," he says, "so people should include the county, nearest town, and identity of the individual, if they know it." To make a tax--deductible donation to TIP, request a presentation, or get more information, call 651-406-9111 or visit www.turninpoachers.com.
Mike Rahn lives in Brainerd and writes a weekly outdoors column published in several Minnesota newspapers.